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Archive for the ‘Dinner party’ Category

After so many days of steadfastly eating your way through Christmas dinner and all the leftovers, New Year is a great opportunity to tuck into something a little different…even more so if you have a willing victim (erm, I meant volunteer) to support you playing around with ideas and equipment.

We were at a friend’s house for New Year. Lisa had set Harry the challenge of cooking something for us all on New Year’s Eve. Some lovely brisket had been bought before our arrival and Harry was keen to cook a really special cottage pie. The question was how would he go about it? What would make it special enough to serve for New Year? After all cottage pie is usually something made mid-week with your leftover roast.

Cue my over-active food mind! Should we simply mince it? No, too simple. Should the meat be marinated before cooking? In what? Maybe we roast it before mincing to go in the pie? Or perhaps slowly braise it before shredding? Hang on, I thought, this is Harry we’re with. We need gadgets, we need pin-point accuracy, we need showmanship à la Heston! How about putting his new Weber BBQ to good use? A few beers later and a plan was hatched!

It was in some of that beer (Old Peculier, in case you’re wondering, chosen for its dark, malty and almost liquorice character) that the meat went, along with a dried chilli, some garlic, a good dash of Worcestershire sauce, whole black peppercorns and a drop of coffee.

The next morning, after a good breakfast of course, it was time to get the BBQ going. We’d need to cook the meat low and slow and decided on 120 degrees centigrade as our optimum temperature (I was listening and learning at Grillstock back in the summer!). Keeping an eye on the thermometer and topping up the coals to ensure a constant heat as well as basting the meat with the marinade every hour for six hours, we were confident that, if nothing else, we’d have a tasty piece of meat at the end of it.

Six hours later and it was time to leave our meat to rest before moving on. We got on with making the gravy, gently sweating onions until soft then adding small cubes of carrot and some crushed garlic, a spoon of flour, the remainder of the marinade, some beef stock and the meat juices. We shredded the meat, excited by what the resulting different sizes of meat would bring to the finished dish, and into the gravy it went.

Everything combined, the filling was transferred to the pie dish and topped with creamy mashed potato (to be sure not to leave out any of the detail, the boiled potatoes went through a ricer, had butter, cream and seasoning added) before being baked at 200 degrees centigrade for 30 minutes.

Worth the wait and the effort? Oh yes! The result was stunning. It’s not something I’ll be doing every time I make a cottage pie but we had fun cooking it and seeing it being devoured in no time at all accompanied by a round of mmmm’s with every forkful. This was the perfect cottage pie with which to end the year and welcome in the next.

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It probably wouldn’t surprise you to read that food played a big role in our wedding. The wedding breakfast was particularly important but the munching didn’t stop there.

The beauty of Folly Farm was that the venue was ours for the whole weekend. It meant we could arrive on the Friday to decorate and set the rooms up as we wanted then share dinner with close family and friends that evening around the big table in the Old Dairy.

That dinner consisted of Brazilian pork and black bean stew and a black bean chilli which, just weeks before the wedding, I’d spent a weekend making and then froze (thanks to Heidi for the loan of space in her chest freezer!) ready for my mum to re-heat once we’d finished decking out the rooms.

My mum also kindly made a selection of family-favourite desserts; chocolate mousse, pavlova and apple crumble. The chocolate mousse was clearly a big hit with my four year old goddaughter who had four helpings!

Banished from the kitchen on my wedding day, my presence made itself known at breakfast in the form of American pancakes, a weekend brunch favourite. The same weekend I was busy making stew and chilli, I also made a huge pile of pancakes for everyone. Served with maple syrup and raspberries, it was a great way to set us up for the day. I particularly enjoyed mine sat in bed with a cup of tea, chatting with friends!

We would have hated for anyone to go home hungry and/or not having had enough to drink so sausage sandwiches and cheese were in order late in the evening.

Ian at the Cheese Shed helped us construct our own ‘cheese cake’ of wonderful South West cheeses, decorated by our friend, Mel, who also did an amazing job with my bouquet.

From top to bottom:

Gevrik (goat’s cheese)

Eve (goat’s cheese)

Black-Eyed Susan (organic, Jersey cow’s milk cheese)

Miss Muffet (semi-soft, cow’s milk cheese)

Wild Garlic Yarg (cow’s milk cheese wrapped in wild garlic leaves)

Beenleigh Blue (blue ewe’s milk cheese)

Six Spires (unpasteurised cow’s milk cheese)

The sausages were lovingly cooked by our WOMAD friends, Gordon & Alex, as a wedding present! Bread rolls came from the independent artisan bakery, Mark’s Bread, on North Street and the sausages from our usual supplier, the brilliant Bristol Sausage Shop, in Bristol’s St Nick’s market.

Having road tested our shortlist of flavours with our fellow WOMAD-goers this summer, we decided on the three favourites: the Lucifer (a pork sausage with a chilli hit), black magic (pork and black pudding) and pork, red onion and ginger. There were also lovely veggie sausages from the Naked Kitchen.

The food didn’t stop there! We couldn’t ask people to help clear up on an empty stomach so laid on bacon sandwiches on the Sunday morning. Our friends know us so well – Emma, Ed and Hattie bought us amazing Chatsworth House cured bacon as our wedding present and made their own ketchup and brown sauce to go with it. A special thanks to my mum and dad, Phil and others who helped make sure everyone was fed and watered before getting on their way.

They also put together ‘party bags’ of leftover cake, cheese and biscuits, sausages and bread for people to take with them. I hate food going to waste so it gave me great pleasure to know that there were plenty of picnics had on the way home and friends’ children had the best packed lunches the following week!

The clearing up done, everyone on their way home and the hangovers setting in, we headed to the Michelin starred Pony & Trap for Sunday lunch. Melt in the mouth Gloucester Old Spot pork loin and tender rare-breed roast sirloin of beef with all the trimmings were a fitting end to an incredible and unforgettable wedding weekend.

After such an indulgent weekend, I have high hopes for married life – may we be lucky enough to continue to share and enjoy many years of love and fine food together.

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When Jed finally proposed whilst we were on holiday in Stockholm last year (he doesn’t like to rush into things but after 13 years decided I probably was the one!), my thoughts immediately turned not, as I imagine most girls would, to my dress, shoes or hair, but to food!

Good food and sharing a meal with family and friends is a big part of our life. If there was one thing that had to be just so, it was the food for our wedding breakfast. Not only did it need to be the right food, cooked well, but it also needed to be served in the right way, family-style.

For some time I knew that if we were to ever get married it wouldn’t be a traditional wedding breakfast that we’d be feasting on, it’d be curry. All I had to do was find a) somewhere which would allow us to bring in our own caterers and b) a caterer that would cook our food of choice to a high standard. Sounds simple enough!

Folly FarmWe found and secured the right venue soon enough. The Folly Farm Centre is set within a 250 acre nature reserve managed by the Avon Wildlife Trust. It’s a beautiful venue which is yours for a full weekend, with several function rooms at your disposal, views across to Chew Valley lake, grounds, orchards and woodland to wonder in, its own kitchen garden, a professional kitchen, a choice of caterers on tap or the ability to bring in your own and plenty of accommodation for you and your guests to stay in.

Finding a caterer wasn’t quite so easy! The frustration seemed endless: a complete lack of response or quick to respond initially and then you’d never hear from them again, inability to cater for so many people, far too expensive for our budget, only willing to cook set menus, only provide a buffet service, willing to provide the food but nothing else. The hurdles kept on appearing.

That was until I stumbled upon a relatively new catering company in Bristol called Whisk!. Mike was more than happy to take on my challenge. Looking back now, I feel sorry for Mike who, after saying yes he could help, was then bombarded with detail, suggestions and requests. But even that didn’t put him off! In fact, he came back with a bespoke menu which encompassed my wishes and which clearly showed that he’d thought about his client and the brief. The menu even included a dish from my favourite Indian chef, reminiscent of family meals as a child at our local Nepalese restaurant.

Next came the tasting session. I was filled with excitement at the prospect of Mike coming to our house (yes, he came to us!), cooking items of the meal in my kitchen, serving it to us for dinner and chatting through our ideas and comments. The food we tasted was stunning and there was no question at that point that we’d found the right caterer.

Fast forwarding through the to-ing and fro-ing over practicalities and the order of proceedings, the big day arrived. Keeping me out of the kitchen was always going to be a tall order, friends had even joked that they wouldn’t be surprised to have seen me in my frock getting stuck in! Thankfully I had the photographer on hand to capture the best bits for me and hair and make-up to focus on.

Following the ceremony, we gathered in the courtyard where our guests were treated to a selection of canapés with their Prosecco. Hopefully a hint at what was to follow. The vegetable samosas, spicy lamb skewers and onion bhajis didn’t hang around long – the chefs battled to keep up with the greedy hoards and so many of our guests commented that the bhajis were among the best they’ve eaten!

Poppadoms and home-made chutneys were on the tables as our guests sat down for the main event. Platters of Indian breads and large bowls of pilau rice, Kashmiri lamb curry (an Atul Kochhar recipe), achari paneer (achari being one of our favourite types of curry), tarka dhal (my father-in-law and I always fight over who’s going to finish the last bit) and saag bhaji were then brought to us for everyone to help themselves to.

We had toyed with various ideas for dessert but in the end, as my mother-in-law had spent so much time and done such a great job making the cakes, decided to serve them with coffee, tea and chai. A good decision as I don’t think they would have been enjoyed as much had we left it until later to serve them.

I’d been nervous in the preceding weeks about whether the food would be as good as it was when we did our tasting but I needn’t have worried. It was all delicious and there has hardly a scrap left!

Not only had Whisk! done us proud with our meal but they had also catered for a couple of guests with very special dietary requirements to the same high standard everyone else received. The catering staff were brilliant; very friendly, smiling, attentive and highly professional. Explaining what all the dishes were as they brought them to the tables was a lovely touch. Satiated and satisfied we left them to clear up so we could get on with the party!

There’s no doubting that choosing a ‘self-catering’ venue and our own caterer was extra work and a little stressful at times but it was more than worth it for the result which was everything we had wanted. Not only a day but also a meal to remember.

Thanks to Matthew Lincoln Photography for the photos.

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Each year we have ‘mini Christmas’. Mini Christmas came about because we weren’t able to celebrate with close family and friends on the actual day. So as not to miss out we have a Christmas meal and exchange gifts a week or so before Christmas.

We take it in turns to cook the starter, main course and dessert. There is an unwritten and unconsciously agreed rule that we never have the same thing twice and we never have turkey!

This year, Jed and I were on dessert duty. I dread dessert years because, as anyone who knows me will know, I’m not a pudding person and find it difficult to get inspired about sweet things.

After a good few weekends of extremely difficult (!!) research consisting of watching plenty of BBC food programmes, the Good Food channel and the Food Network channel, I had developed a dessert worthy of a place on the mini Christmas table.

chocolate orange. Not Terry’s, mine.

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I spent the weekend at a very different work Christmas party, not my own company’s Christmas party, but that of my partner’s, Element78. This year, the MD, Iain, decided that rather than the usual meal and drinks in town he’d invite partners and organise something a little different; an away weekend to Springhead, a beautiful, rural, self-catering centre in Dorset. 

When, in the pub one Friday evening after work, I offered to manage the Christmas dinner cooking for him, I could see the weight falling off his shoulders. And so, the idea came about that each member of the E78 team and their partner would be responsible for organising one element of the weekend to share the load.  Then began a couple of months deliberation, discussion and delegation.

My attention turned to menu planning. Unaware of how good the facilities would be but knowing we were going to be out and about during the day and there’d only be a short time available for cooking, it had to be something which could be turned around in as short a time as possible…no giant turkey then! 

The hardest part, besides calculating how many potatoes to order (after all, there is a rule which states that no matter how many roast potatoes you cook, there just aren’t going to be enough), was finding something suitable for the vegetarians. Whilst I insist on having veggie night once a week at home, I’m not vegetarian and nor could I ever be (I could not come to terms with life without chicken or pork with crackling!), I do like to look at the vegetarian options when we’re out for dinner. I’m often appalled at how unappealing and thoughtless the dishes are compared to the meat or fish dishes, especially on Sunday and Christmas menus. My challenge had to be to come up with a vegetarian option which not only went with all the trimmings but which made my vegetarian diners feel special and that their meal was a star of the show. 

Initial numbers worked out at 14 meat eaters and 3 veggies but as the days before the big weekend passed, messages were being relayed my way about the changing numbers. One day it would increase, the next decrease. It was impossible to know how many I would be feeding on the night. There was only one thing to do; keep calm and carry on!

We arrived back from an afternoon of virtual warfare (one to keep the boys happy!) around 6, dinner was to be served at 8. Time to get cooking. I’m very thankful to Jed and the small team of helpers who took orders to get potatoes peeled, carrots chopped, sprouts shredded, peppers stuffed and utensils washed. Within the hour everything was prepared and anything that needed to be in the oven was – there was plenty of time for G&Ts and to change into party frocks before the final flourish and service. Ramsay’s kitchen nightmares this wasn’t, but I could get used to the shouts of ‘yes chef’!!

Dinner went down incredibly well and people couldn’t have been more complimentary, with pretty much everyone (final headcount was 21) asking for one recipe or another. I achieved my aim with the vegetarian dish and was overwhelmed by the comment of ‘this was the best Christmas dinner I’ve had’. I can’t help but think that I’ve got a job for life at future E78 Christmas party’s but, do you know what, I’d be more than happy with that outcome!

Here it is, the Element 78 Christmas 2010 menu:

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